Tri-City Herald: Basin water project makes sense for economy, ecology

We’ve all heard the saying “When pigs fly” when referring to an improbable situation.

It would be an apt phrase to use if the success of a project required the cooperation of environmentalists, tribes and irrigation districts.

Throw in a government agency or two at the state and federal levels and it’s really something to scoff at.

But in this case, water is the tie that binds these groups together on a complex project known as the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan. It is a massive $3.8 billion, 30-year plan.

Each entity has its own reasons for being involved, and those reasons — fish, farming, tribal lands — often bring conflict. They all need water to succeed, and a way to store it for the times when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate with an adequately snowy winter.

If streams don’t flow, fish don’t flourish. In a drought year like this state is facing — with water rationing and drought responses being put in place — farmers get anxious as their livelihoods hang in the balance. Tribal lands have their own irrigation and water needs, and fish and rivers have a huge role in the culture.

“Yakima Basin is one of the most complex areas when you start talking about treaty rights, water rights, the whole kit and caboodle,” said Phil Rigdon, who oversees the Yakama Nation Department of Natural Resources.

He’s not kidding. But somehow they are making it work and working together for the good of all.

And the different players have had to make compromises that would have been unthinkable in previous years.

While there is a long way to go to achieve the lofty and necessary goals that balance the needs of all the stakeholders, progress already has been marked with the $97 million purchase of 51,000 acres north of Cle Elumfor more water storage that is critical to the Yakima Basin watershed.

When completed, though, we will have improved stream flows for fish and better fish passage. The project also provides more reliable water for farmers and communities while protecting forest, shrub steppe, and river habitat. It’s a win for several groups who have been at odds for years.

Not everyone will win. Water storage will impact owners of homes and cabins at a few lakes in the Cascade Mountains. Public comment was just reopened on projects at Keechelus and Kachess lakes.

A few will have to sacrifice for the physical and fiscal health of a large portion of the state.

Farmers, tribes and environmentalists have all had to concede some things in order to work together to ensure the Yakima Basin never runs out of water again.

It’s a plan that makes sense for our state’s future — from the environmental and the economic side.